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2017 NBA Free Agency: Pelicans face a steep climb to reach playoffs in Western Conference

Three new All-Star talents have moved West and playoffs are not a certainty in the Crescent City

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Conference shows no signs of letting up. 25% of the Eastern Conference All-Star team has moved to the West since the season ended. Jimmy Butler was traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night. Paul George followed on the eve of free agency from the Indiana Pacers to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just minutes ago Paul Millsap agreed to sign with the Denver Nuggets. Yes, two teams who did not even make the playoffs last season (Minnesota and Denver) have added legitimate All-Star talents.

New Orleans Pelicans fans might be penciling this team into the playoffs, not so fast. Even if the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz (should Gordon Hayward depart in free agency) collapse this season (I’m doubtful on either case) there is plenty of competition for the eight playoff spots. Let’s break it down by tiers.

Prohibitive Championship Favorite: Golden State Warriors

Self explanatory.

Legitimate Title Contender: San Antonio Spurs

See above. Can they beat the Warriors? Probably not. With a healthy Kawhi Leonard it is probably an exciting series.

Near Playoff Locks: Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder

Both teams have guard/wing superstars that can carry the scoring and point creation roles. James Harden and Chris Paul for Houston and Russell Westbrook and Paul George for Oklahoma City. I don’t necessarily believe this locks them into the third and fourth seeds, but I would be shocked (and expect significant injuries to their stars) if either team missed the playoffs.

The morass of playoff contenders (in alphabetical order): Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz

That’s a whole bunch of teams. Eight teams to be precise, competing for just four playoff spots. New Orleans was better than just two of those eight; Minnesota (who added an All-Star in Jimmy Butler) and Dallas. Should the Jazz re-sign Gordon Hayward they catapult into near playoff lock status; they won 51 games last season despite battling waves of injuries and already have a replacement for George Hill in Ricky Rubio.

If you think “the Pelicans were way better than all these teams after they got DeMarcus Cousins” I must remind you that Portland went 18-8 after the All-Star break. That’s a 57 win pace. If New Orleans had done the same fans would be apoplectic that I didn’t write them into the playoffs in permanent marker. And yet I place Portland here in this soup of teams legitimately trying for the playoffs but not guaranteed a ticket to the dance.

Health is going to be a huge contributor here. If Memphis is healthy and can count on Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Chandler Parsons every night they will be very good despite fans frequently predicting their downfall for the last three plus years. Utah could be a juggernaut if they build any lineup continuity. Dallas still employs Rick Carlisle as their head coach and he may well be an actual warlock. Denver and Minnesota have added All-Stars who should help in crunch time and most especially on the defensive end, where those teams need the most help.

It’s not a stretch in my mind to think 45 or more wins are necessary just to make the playoffs out West, especially since the Eastern Conference has become a laughingstock. New Orleans can absolutely get there. The Pelicans are a long, long way from being considered a lock for the playoffs in the current Western Conference environment.

Unconcerned with playoffs or winning: Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings

These teams are young and they know it. Even still, they should be reasonably competitive. None are on par with the Brooklyn Nets of last year for comparison sake. Expect them to grab some early wins they weren’t supposed to, fall off in January, and commit to losing by the All-Star Break.

There’s still time for things to shake out further. Gordon Hayward’s decision looms the largest on the playoff picture now. Maybe just one All-Star can move East and open the window to the playoffs a little wider for Anthony Davis and the Pelicans?